New rules seek to curb mercury emissions

Regulations aimed at airborne toxins emitted by coal-fueled power plants

Environmentalists call actions too little, too late

March 15, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration is to unveil regulations today to reduce mercury air pollution from coal-fired power plants, making the United States the first nation to restrict such emissions.

But environmentalists complain that the new rules - which allow companies to swap pollution credits instead of installing filters on all plants - are weaker and about a decade slower than the Environmental Protection Agency could have required if it had simply enforced the 1970 Clean Air Act.

Mercury air pollution is released by the burning of coal and other materials. It rises into the atmosphere, is flushed by rain into the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways, and accumulates in the bodies of fish.

Advance copies of the regulations, which are to be signed this afternoon, show that the rules aim to cut mercury emissions from power plants by 21 percent by 2010 and by 69 percent by 2018, adding to restrictions imposed during the 1990s on municipal incinerators and other sources.

The impact of the new rules on the nine coal-powered electricity generating stations in Maryland is unclear, because the owners could choose to pay for the right to continue belching out the neurotoxin.

A January report by the National Wildlife Foundation said that power plants produce two-thirds of the 3,295 pounds of mercury spewed into the air from smokestacks in Maryland in 2002. Three of the top five sources of mercury air pollution in the state - the Morgantown power plant in Charles County, Chalk Point in Prince George's County, and the Dickerson plant in Montgomery County - are coal-fired generators owned by subsidiaries of the Mirant Corporation of Atlanta.

Limited praise

Brad Heavner, director of the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group, offered limited praise for the Bush administration's initiative, but said it didn't go far enough.

"Mercury emissions from power plants have never been regulated, so to put any regulations on them is certainly a good thing," Heavner said. But the new rules fail to require all plants to reduce emissions, he added.

"So it's not clear if this will require the power plants in Maryland to add any new equipment, and that's frustrating, because the technology exists," said Heavner.

The EPA inspector general's office issued a critical report Feb. 3 saying that agency management told staff members working on the rules to arrive at a predetermined conclusion favoring industry.

Even if the EPA reaches the goal it has set for 2018, fish consumption warnings for pregnant women may not change because less than 1 percent of the global mercury pollution that taints fish comes from the U.S., said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman. Of all fish consumed in the U.S., 80 percent are shipped from foreign countries with no mercury rules, according to the EPA and environmental groups.

"There is a perception out there that if we just controlled mercury more and did it faster, the fish advisories would just go away," Bergman said. "The problem is that the majority of Americans eat seafood, such as tuna, swordfish, and shrimp, that come from non-U.S. sources. So it's important that target populations continue to follow the consumption advisories."

The EPA advises that most adults shouldn't worry about the trace levels of mercury in fish. But the heavy metal can damage the nervous systems of unborn babies and children, and the government suggests that women of childbearing age and the very young eat no shark or swordfish, and no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna a week, according to the EPA.

Higher rates predicted

Steve Arabia, spokesman for Mirant's mid-Atlantic branch, said the mercury rules, combined with new restrictions on other air pollutants announced by the Bush administration last week, could lead to higher electric rates nationally.

"It's clear that as more and more emissions reductions occur at the nation's power plants, the costs will find their way into electric rates eventually," Arabia said.

The EPA was empowered by the 1970 Clean Air Act to regulate mercury. But it took decades, and several lawsuits from environmental groups, before the Clinton administration concluded in 2000 that power plants were a major source of mercury pollution.

This conclusion would normally have required the agency to force all coal-burning power plants to install "maximum available control technology," such as scrubbers or other filtration systems, said Eric Schaeffer, former director of civil enforcement for the EPA.

But under President Bush, the EPA abandoned this approach, which could have reduced emissions by 90 percent, Schaeffer said. Instead, the Bush adminsitration went with a pollution credit trading system pushed by industry, he said.

Schaeffer said that because the emissions trading system allows companies to stockpile emissions credits, a mercury reduction of only 55 percent is likely by 2030.

A power industry group yesterday praised the president's plan.

"The cap-and-trade mechanism creates substantial economic incentives for superior mercury control but remains sensitive to real technological constraints," Scott Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, said in a written statement.

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